Nats need to figure out in 2018 if Robles is part of plan in 2019

Fifteen games and 28 plate appearances is hardly enough sample size to make legitimate evaluations of a young ballplayer. And yet even in his brief, end-of-season stint with the Nationals, Victor Robles turned a whole lot of heads.

It was impossible not to notice the 20-year-old outfielder, who dazzled in his performance, in his athleticism and in his composure following his September promotion from Double-A Harrisburg. Heck, the Nationals were so impressed themselves that they included him on their postseason roster.

What, though, does the 2018 season have in store for Robles? There’s no questioning his legitimacy as the organization’s top prospect. (He ranks in the top 10 among all of the sport’s prospects at the moment.) But what’s a realistic timetable for his permanent ascension to the majors, and what can realistically be expected of him at that point?

Robles Dugout Congrats Sidebar.jpgLet’s start with the first question. Though Mike Rizzo won’t completely rule it out, the general manager seems to be downplaying the possibility that Robles will make the Nationals’ opening day roster, certainly not as a reserve.

“He’s going to play every day,” Rizzo said last month at Nats Winterfest. “The decision we’re going to make there is: Is it going to be at the big league level, or is it going to be at the minor league level? It’s never a bad idea to get minor league at-bats. That’s never a bad thing. But he forced his way onto the playoff roster last year, and we’re going to give him every opportunity to force his way onto the big league roster.”

Translation: The only way Robles heads north with the club at the end of March is if something has forced Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton or Michael A. Taylor out of the daily lineup. And it’s difficult to imagine anything other than an injury prompting such a development. (Unless the club chose to trade Taylor, that is.)

Robles, like all young prospects, benefits most from getting regular at-bats. And that’s most likely to happen in the minor leagues. Don’t forget, he has played only 37 games at Double-A and has never spent a day at Triple-A.

The logical course of action would have Robles open the season at Syracuse, perhaps splitting his time between center and right fields. Then, it all depends on what happens in Washington.

Harper and Eaton’s starting jobs obviously are secure. Taylor’s job is less so, with the 26-year-old hoping to pick up where he left off last season but yet to establish he can be a consistent producer over the long term. The Nationals’ leash on Taylor should be long; there’s no reason to make an abrupt change after a few weeks or even a month or two. But if Memorial Day arrives and it’s clear Robles is a better option, they probably wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact the Nationals do need to find out this year what exactly they have in Robles. Maybe Harper ends up signing a long-term deal to stay in Washington, but nobody is going to assume that scenario. Which means the Nats need to know by season’s end whether Robles is going to be ready to take over as Harper’s everyday replacement in 2019. The only way to find that out is to give him a legitimate look in 2018.

Obviously the Nationals’ No. 1 priority this season is to win. They aren’t running a tryout camp, not at this point. If Robles is going to play, it’ll be because he gives them the best chance to win with whatever roster they have at the moment.

But in the back of their minds, the Nats also know they would love to have a chance to make some serious evaluations of their top prospect this year, given his importance after that.

“He will play every day, somewhere, opening day,” Rizzo said. “He’s got to get consistent, everyday at-bats. He’s going to be a force for us in the very near future.”

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